Illinois Clinches NCAA Finals Bid at Norman Regional
May 19, 2012
NORMAN, Okla. - For the fifth year in a row, the Illinois men's golf team qualified for the NCAA Championships after tying for third at the NCAA Norman Regional behind three top-10 individual performances. The Illini maintained their position in the top five on Saturday and moved up a spot with a final round 296 to tie with No. 24 Florida State at 871 (+7). Illinois, which nabbed its 20th national bid in school history, is one of just six schools to advance to the NCAA Finals each of the past five seasons, joining Florida, Texas, Texas A&M, UCLA and USC in the elite group.
"I am so proud of these guys," head coach Mike Small said. "It is quite an accomplishment to make five in a row, which really shows how we are building a program and not just a team. It was a survival day and adversity hit us early, but we persevered again and really had a strong showing. The wind was very strong, which made it pretty tough out there. We held each other up as a team and that was special."
The Illini, who were seeded seventh entering the regional, finished behind only No. 1 Texas (E) and regional champion No. 13 Washington (-4) at the Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club. Host Oklahoma (+10) notched the final national bid, as the top five teams from the regional earned a trip to the NCAA Championships in 10 days. The NCAA Finals will be played from May 29-June 3 at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Individually, sophomore Thomas Pieters led the Illini for the third day in a row and took second overall with a 54-hole total of 210 (-6). He carded a final round 73 and entered the clubhouse with a one-stroke lead, but Washington's Chris Williams eagled No. 18 to capture the regional title. The Nijlen, Belgium, native came away with his second runner-up finish of the year and eighth top-10 showing, which includes five top-five efforts.
"It was huge for Thomas to finish second in a strong regional field like this," Small said. "It's a shame that he couldn't get the victory, but my hats off to Williams on making the eagle on that final hole. Thomas continues to get better, and the whole team has continued to get better, which is what makes it fun for a coach."
Two other Illini placed in the top 10, as senior Luke Guthrie tied for seventh and freshman Brian Campbell tied for 10th. Guthrie, who notched his seventh top-10 finish this season, tallied a final round 75 to finish with a 54-hole total of 217 (+1). The Quincy, Ill., native has helped Illinois reach the NCAA Finals during all four years of his career.
"Our goal coming into the season was to first win Big Tens and then make it to nationals," Guthrie said. "We've done that now, so we can go out to Riviera and try to mix it up because anything can happen. Whenever you have three guys in the top 10, that normally translates to some pretty good things for the team, so hopefully we can ride that momentum into nationals."
Campbell matched Pieters for the best final round by an Illini with a 73 and equaled his career-low tournament total of 218 (+2). The Irvine, Calif., native earned the best finish of his career and placed in the top 20 for the third tournament in a row. Freshman Alex Burge tied for 48th at 229 (+13) following a third round 75, which rounded out the team scoring and gave Illinois the fourth-best final round at the regional.
"These freshmen have grown up in front of our eyes this spring, which has been pretty cool to see," Small said. "They were a big part of today when we really needed them to be."
The Illini will next compete in the 30-team field at the NCAA Championships beginning on Tuesday, May 29. Last season, the Illini turned in the program's best finish since 1941 at the NCAA Finals, tying for fifth after reaching the match play round for the first time in school history.
NCAA Norman Regional Final Results